Saudi Arabia at a Glance
Moving to Saudi ArabiaiStockphoto
Saudi Arabia, the Desert Kingdom, is home to nearly nine million foreign residents.
With millions of foreigners working in the biggest economy in the Middle East, expats will find they are in good company in the “Land of the Two Holy Mosques”. According to estimates from 2013, there are between eight and nine million non-foreign residents living in the country.
However, don’t be fooled by the sheer numbers of foreigners moving to Saudi Arabia, e.g. for business reasons: The desert kingdom is far from being an open, multicultural society; it’s rather one marked by strict rules and traditions, which foreign residents should take into account.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as it is officially known, was founded in 1932. Non-Muslims moving to Saudi Arabia should be aware that their destination prides itself on being the birthplace of Islam, and that religion is an all-pervasive principle in the public and private spheres.
Ever since its inception, the modern state has been ruled by the Al Saud family, and the current king Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz functions as both head of state and prime minister. As an expat, you should therefore not be surprised at the absence of political parties or other forms of public participation in politics.
The ulema on the other hand, a body of Islamic religious leaders and legal scholars, plays a direct role in government. Even non-locals or non-Muslims may be targeted by the religious police, called mutaween, or officially the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, who ensure that decency and decorum are observed in public.
Moving to Saudi Arabia demands a high degree of flexibility and adaptability if you are not used to living in a restrictive society. Hospitality is held up as a great virtue, but that does not mean the devout will tolerate behavior that is not in accordance with the teachings of the Quran, or their interpretation thereof. Foreigners are expected to comply with the written and unwritten rules of local life.
Among other things, any expat should be prepared for and ready to accept the following: Gender segregation is common in almost all public places, and women are very restricted in their freedom of movement and expression. (However, King Abdullah recently granted women the right to vote and run in municipal elections as of 2015.) An expatriate woman relocating to Saudi Arabia may find these restrictions hard to cope with.
As the kingdom is a very religious and conservative place, foreigners, especially non-Muslims, are strongly advised to refrain from anything that might offend their hosts, like consuming alcohol in public, dressing indecently (by local standards), or openly practicing a religion other than Islam.
However, a move to Saudi Arabia will not only trigger culture shock among expats, but also temperature shock: In some places, daytime temperatures can rise as high as 50° C in the height of summer. Everyone moving to Saudi Arabia from colder parts of the world should be well aware of the effects this might have on their health and constitution. (Don’t forget that you can’t just take off your clothes and jump into nearest pool, either, especially not if you’re a woman.)
As most of the Arabian Peninsula is made up of desert or semi-desert shrubland, there is practically no rainfall all year round. The only exception is the Asir region, which is influenced by the monsoon from the Indian Ocean.